Testimony: Cardinal Dolan Calls Penance the Sacrament of the New Evangelization and How I Know He is Right
writings of the Protestant reformers. However, it was as though the Church stopped with the Apostles, or shortly thereafter, only to be rekindled by Martin Luther.
I wanted to know the whole story! I began to make daily visits to the Lakeland Florida Public library. There I probed early Church writings and began to question my way right back to my Catholic Christian faith. I discovered the early Christian writings, the Fathers and the wonderful truth about the early Christian Church, her early liturgy, her understanding of the "mysteries" (sacraments) and her hierarchical order. I sought out a priest and began my journey home to the Catholic Church.
Little did I realize then that this part of the journey would also lead me to find the freedom I longed for. through experiencing the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Penance). "Confession" was one of the practices of Catholic faith I no longer thought I "needed" and did not understand. However, though I knew the Lord was real and active in my life and I knew that He forgave me for my sins, my wrong choices and rebellion, I still felt bound by them.
I wanted to be free. I also wanted more of God. I prayed - but I knew that I had only scratched the surface of His invitation to a relationship of communion. I knew it was more than the well intended little songs I had learned along the way. It was an invitation into His very life and a call to holiness. I read a flyer in the back of the parish Church I was attending about a retreat that was to occur in Southern Florida. The "Retreat Master" was a Benedictine Monk, (the "Abbot" or "Father" of a monastery). The theme was "intimacy with the Lord".
I registered and went the next weekend. The retreat grounds were beautiful and called to mind my childhood experiences at similar places- "holy places" set aside for encountering God. There I was, soaking in the sun, on these beautiful retreat grounds in sunny Southern Florida. I was eighteen years young. I had been intrigued by a flyer advertising the retreat at the back of the Catholic Church I began attending. The retreat promised to help all who attended experience a deeper intimacy with Jesus through developing an interior life.
By now, I had returned home to the Church of my childhood, the Catholic Church. I was back at Mass, the sacred liturgy, almost every day. I was reading the Sacred Scriptures (the Bible) and something from the Fathers of the Church or the lives of the Saints every day. I had fallen in love with the Church. Now I was a Catholic Christian, not only because I was raised that way, but also because I had doubted, questioned and prayed my way back home. Or rather, the Head of that Church had invited me and I had begun to hear His voice.
Oh, how I wanted to hear it even more deeply. I attended the retreat for that reason. That day, during the morning sessions, I was invited to focus on developing an interior life and deepen my relationship with Jesus Christ in prayer. Not only were the talks wonderful, but something much more profound was about to occur. After hearing an inspiring message on loving the Lord given by a holy Benedictine Abbott, an announcement was made that "Confession", the Sacrament of Penance (or Reconciliation), would be available all afternoon for all participating in the retreat.
Frankly, I was afraid. Oh, I had overcome my misinformed opposition to the notion that "I didn't need" such a thing. I found its roots in the Scriptures; its development in Church history and the tradition, and its confirmation in the contemporary proliferation of counselors, psychologists, and mental health practitioners substituting as "secular priests." However, I had not been to the Sacrament since I was in the sixth grade. When I first re-embraced my faith, I did not quite understand why it was necessary. However, through my study, I began to understand its extraordinary role as a resource in the ongoing call to holiness of life. I was at this retreat because I truly wanted to be holy and not just talk about it.
My reading had unearthed an extraordinary connection in the lives of the great heroes of the faith, the saints, between holiness of life and frequent recourse to this sacrament. The late and great G.K. Chesterton was once asked why he became a Catholic. He responded, "The forgiveness of sins." That day I would come to discover what he meant. In order to facilitate the crowd, the organizers of the retreat had set up chairs all over the lawn---one for the priest and one for the penitent. There were no confessionals --another form of the sacrament where the identity of the penitent is concealed- that would have at least been less frightening to me.
I felt not only embarrassed, but also ashamed and afraid. I thought back on the years I had been away from the Lord, all the wrong choices I had made, and the people I had hurt. Somehow, though I knew I had confessed my sins to the Lord, I still carried a sense of guilt and knew that my sin had wounded more people than myself. I recalled the Abbots' talk that morning on the text from the Letter of James "confess your sins to one another." But the fear was crippling. I remembered a few occasions as a child when the experience in the confessional had not been a good one. Times when I was shamed and left the experience feeling worse than before I entered the confessional. Now, there was no confessional, it was face to face!
I opened my Bible and my eyes fell upon the words of the Lord that followed the great healing of the woman with the hemorrhage and the sincere inquiry from the father whose daughter had died: "Do Not fear, only believe." (Mark 5:36) said the Lord. It was as though He was speaking those words directly to me. I was learning to trust that this Church was indeed the continuing presence of the Body of Christ on earth, making His redemptive love available through all the channels of grace.
This was a "Sacrament", an invitation to receive grace. The definition I had learned as a child filled my head, "an outward sign instituted by God to give grace." - "Who am I to reject the gift of God?" I thought to myself. So, I overcame both the shame and the fear, walked right up to the very young, handsome priest and told him I hadn't been to confession since the sixth grade. "Have a seat" he said, "the Lord has been waiting, he is eager to forgive and to heal."
Like priming a pump I began to speak and the words flowed forth in a cathartic experience, complete with tears- a torrent of repentance. This wonderful priest of Jesus Christ looked at me with the compassion of His Lord and simply listened. I expressed my remorse and I asked the Lord for forgiveness. Then I heard those words I had not heard since I was a child: "I absolve you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit". So certain. So firm. So personal. So liberating!
I experienced the weight of the world lifted from my drooping shoulders. I was young again. "Father," I said, "thank you." "Thank Jesus" he responded," He loves you more than you know." Then I paused and asked, ". Isn't there a penance?" "Oh Yes" he said, "Spend a good amount of time in prayer and then Go, and love the Lord". I left that encounter with the servant of the Lord, the priest of jesus the High Priest, a free man.
Over all these years I have tried to be faithful to his admonition, "Go, and love the Lord." However, I have often failed, fallen short, or to use the literal translation of the word sin, missed the mark. Loving the Lord is a constant invitation to conversion. It invites all those who are serious about the way of discipleship, to a life of crucified love. From that day forward however, I know I have a place to go when the weight of my sin, my wrong choices and acts burden me- the Sacrament where I can continually be made new, forgiven, and healed. The place of meeting mercy- where I can be born again and again and again and again.
I am older now- my hair has grayed. I am losing the spring in my step. But, I am wiser. I know my own weakness and frailty. It stares at me through the lines on my face every morning when I shave. It manifests itself in the face of my grandchildren, children and beloved wife when I fail to love as Jesus does. It's funny, unlike youth when you know everything; I have reached the point in life where I realize I know very little.
One thing I do know is that I am still trying to "keep my way pure"- and there is a balm for the inevitable wounds of life. I am a joyful penitent now because I know that there is a Sacrament, a place where I can always encounter the never-ending mercy of Jesus Christ, in a real and incarnational way. Through His priest I can always here those wonderful words "I absolve you." and I can again commit myself to "go and love the Lord."
I may no longer be a teenager, but I am still a pilgrim, and what a wonderful journey this life of faith truly has become. It has been made richer since that wonderful day when, as a teenage pilgrim, I rediscovered the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Penance) and my journey to freedom continued. The words of Cardinal Dolan are absolutely true. The Sacrament of Penance is the Sacrament of my New Evangelization and it can become yours as well.
- - -
Pope Benedict XVI's Prayer Intentions for January 2013
General Intention: The Faith of Christians. That in this Year of Faith Christians may deepen their knowledge of the mystery of Christ and witness joyfully to the gift of faith in him.
Missionary Intention: Middle Eastern Christians. That the Christian communities of the Middle East, often discriminated against, may receive from the Holy Spirit the strength of fidelity and perseverance.
Keywords: Cardinal Dolan, New Evangelization, Synod, Penance, conversion, holiness, freedom, born again, Deacon Keith Fournier
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